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Blog // Adaptability
December 19, 2020

2020 Personal Review

2020 was supposed to be all about Momentum. That was my yearly theme. Then everything changed. What would Momentum mean in the middle of a pandemic?

In 2019, I flew 101,318 kilometres on 19 flights through 15 different airports. That’s more than 2.5 times around the world. In the first two and half months of 2020, I’d managed to cover 32,251 kilometres on 7 flights.

Then it all ground to a halt.

I flew back into London on March 7 and spent the weekend cancelling every upcoming commitment and meeting. Then I withdrew from courses and cancelled home renovations. I also fought with my wife because she was still going in to her office. There were cases there, but her company was waiting for advice from the government. And I talked to my daughter about her plans for when her college, inevitability, shut down.

It was clear this was going to be bad.

When I moved to Hong Kong in 2003, everyone I met had a story about SARS. They’d lived with the shock and uncertainty of a deadly, mysterious disease. Many had a plan for what to do when something similar happened again. Once news started to spread about this new coronavirus, I watched my friends in Hong Kong, and across East Asia, start to put their SARS plans into action, like flying to a remote location or hunkering down in situ.

By March 9, with my calendar now cleared, I went into isolation. Once all the groceries and other shopping were being delivered, I went out only to exercise and for essential medical needs. More than two weeks later, after the Australian government had issued a call for citizens to come home and started to close the borders, the government here in the UK started the first of what would be several poorly enforced and fragmentally observed lockdowns.

And that’s how I’ve lived for the rest of the year.

2020 The Year Of Momentum

My yearly theme for 2020 was momentum. Every year I set a theme. I had high hopes for the year of momentum. Then, less than a quarter of the way through, everything just stopped. What does momentum mean when we’re going nowhere?

It turns out, quite a lot.

This is the difference between choosing a theme and setting goals. By mid-March, most of my goals for 2020 were in the trash. I had planned to spend 2020 writing my next book by drawing on my experiences of travelling to all sorts of places around the world, like beaches, caves, deserts, mountaintops and rainforests. That wasn’t going to happen now.

Instead, I had to help my child adjust to a very disappointing version of the college experience she’d been looking forward to for years. And I had to help build a home studio for a spouse unaccustomed to working from home and who was now on Zoom video calls for nearly 10 hours a day.

But, the theme, the idea of momentum, was still there to help. We had to keep moving, keep going, keep trying. Momentum became about holding onto daily habits. I kept my mind moving by writing and learning. I kept my body moving by exercising and walking.

And I kept my soul moving because there was a future out there to look froward to.

The Two-Step Experience

Pretty soon, going online felt odd. People would write about how bored they were from spending all day every day on the sofa watching Netflix in their pyjamas and wondering what day it was.

But I didn’t have enough hours in the day. When I did find my way to the sofa, it was late in the evening and I was feeling kind of shattered from the day.

Then there were the well-meaning suggestions for everyone to focus all their extra time on hobbies. But I’ve never had a year where I had less time to devote to diversions than 2020. Some days it was all I could do to scratch out a few hundred words in between processing deliveries and cooking meals.

And this was before the disinformation really started to spread. Twitter was riddled with bots and freshly minted troll accounts spewing lies. “Masks don’t work” (they do). “The disease isn’t that deadly” (it is, and patients who don’t die suffer for a long time). “Lockdowns in countries that are handling the disease well (like New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia) will ruin their economies” (spookier alert: they didn’t).

It was pretty clear people were experiencing this pandemic in very different ways. If anything, as the year progressed, the gap widened.

When the pandemic first hit, I expected the biggest long-term changes would be around the way we work and learn, or maybe how health and travel services are offered. But it seems the biggest changes might be the way we do friendships. We’ve had a rare window into the morals of people around us. And many didn’t like what they saw in their conspiracy-peddling, COVID-denying, lockdown-breaking, mask-non-wearing friends and co-workers.

Everyone is looking froward to socialising again soon. But who gets invited where might be subject to significant revision.

A Few Words About Privilege

Before going on, I should address the small herd of elephants that are with me in the room as I write this. We took a big hit financially this year but not enough to effect the way we ate or where we lived. A lot of people have had a rougher ride.

I had the good fortune to be living through this close to a large park, which gave me the room to walk in safety. A lot of people were confined in small spaces for weeks without being able to get outside.

My plans were ruined, but I had a long history of creating my own routine and could adjust quickly. Many people were suddenly thrown into working from home or thrown out of being able to work at all.

My experience of living in Asia had prepared me for the radical disruptions that would shape the year. Quite a few people were taken by surprise by this thing they thought was just a type of flu. They were unfamiliar with wearing masks or unable to fathom out how lockdowns and border restrictions could become a thing.

A Few Words About Location

Living in a global city like London seems glamorous. But there were many times this year when I looked with some envy at friends in places with more open space or where the pandemic was spreading less wildly.

Perhaps hardest of all was, I couldn’t act on my own disaster plan. I have a place in the Japanese Alps but couldn’t get back there once the borders had closed. I could’ve gone back to Australia, but not with my wife, whose company made it clear early on that she had to stay in the UK.

This year has left me wondering about where to live. I’ve always enjoyed big global cities. But take away the gigs and galleries, the cinemas and stadiums, and what’s left?

A Few Words About Mental Health

Given my past experiences, it was surprising to me that anxiety wasn’t a problem in 2020. There were potentially triggering moments – visiting the airport to pick up my daughter, moving things to and from the storage locker or going to the doctor for a check-up – all made worse by people’s reticence to wear masks or maintain social distancing. And, there was the constant sound of ambulances, all day and night, the soundtrack of the first weeks of the pandemic.

But those moments didn’t induce anxiety so much as a sudden and chronic bouts of tiredness, which passed after a good night’s sleep.

What was more persistent and eventually corrosive was a kind of angst. At first, things were OK. Everyone I loved was safe and healthy. It was going to take a while for countries that hadn’t seen SARS or MERS first-hand to get their head around public health warnings and social restrictions.

But, surely, they’d get it, act and then reduce the spread, so we could live safely until a vaccine became available.

As the summer wore on, it was clear, especially here in the UK, things were going to go wrong. There were still a few restrictions but little compliance. I’d always wondered about those history book graphs of the Spanish flu in 1918 with its giant second wave and wondered why? How? Now, I was watching it happen.

Within a week of writing that tweet, the number of new daily cases in the UK had doubled. In a month, it’d gone up fivefold.

Maybe that’s why October was the worst month for me. I felt, exhausted, trapped and perpetually weary. It became clear my second year in London wasn’t going to be as wonderful as my second years in other places. I was making mistakes everywhere. My cooking was off. My writing was worse. And sometimes I couldn’t even understand what my loved ones were saying to me.

One of the most disappointing things about 2020 is the way mental health has been weaponised by Covid-deniers and anti-lockdown propagandists. That lockdowns are a mental health disaster is a catch phrase we’ve often heard, with little clarification over what it means or evidence to back it up.

Something corrosive has happened this year for many people, and I’m not sure it’s as simple as the cliche suggests. It might not be an acute problem we will leave behind once lockdowns and this pandemic are behind us. It could be a deeper malaise, connected to things we’ve realised about the people around us and the societies we live in, which we’ll have to face for years to come.

A Very Few Words About Work

Normally, these yearly reviews are mostly about work. But you’re looking at my biggest work project of 2020. This is the 49th of what will be 50 articles for the year. It’s been my most productive blogging for a long time. Thankfully, both my readership and subscribers trebled this year.

Beyond that, the year was mostly about learning and maintenance. I did some great courses, like The Science of Well-Being, Building a Second Brain, and Notion Mastery. I rebuilt my research workflow and updated my photo catalogue system. And I workshopped a memoir manuscript.

Being Sanguine About 2021

My years normally finish with a flurry of activity. I’ve usually got a lot to finish or to prepare so I can pick up again in the new year. And I start every year with an ambitious list of projects.

But not now.

It’s like I’ve hiked the last miles of 2020 slowly with very little in my backpack. I’ve deleted everything on my “to watch” and “to read” lists. If I didn’t consume something in 2020, then when will I?

In my next article, I’ll reveal my theme for 2021 and the simple sketch I have for what I’ll be doing throughout the year. If you’ve chosen a theme for 2021 or have something you are looking to do in the year, then I’d love to hear from you. The more we can encourage each other at this time, the better.

Summing Up The Year Of Momentum

The other big difference between yearly themes and goals is that themes don’t toggle between success and failure. You either achieve goals or you don’t. But the value of a theme is in the way it helps you as you navigate through the year.

And momentum proved to be an extremely helpful theme.

There were so many moments in 2020 when it would’ve been easy to get stuck. Although I didn’t mention momentum in my articles, it’s clear that the desire to keep moving, not to let circumstances hold us back too much and to take care of ourselves was there in a lot of my best articles. Here’s a small sample,

Working From Home
Knolling Is The Perfect Activity For This Moment
How Friction Can Help
Manage Your Energy Not Your Time
Personality Isn’t Permanent
How To Create A Personal Kanban
Before Planning Begin
Advice For Living Well During This Pandemic
Time To Reclaim The Internet – And Our Minds
On Not Losing Hope

Thank you for taking the time to read this article and the others on this site. Hopefully they have brought you inspiration and fresh perspectives. We’ve finally made it to the end of 2020, and I hope we can continue together, into whatever 2021 has in store for us.

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